LEWES in the past has given refuge to many a saintly eccentric - perhaps none more so than the ‘converted coalheaver’ William Huntington.
He was an extraordinary man. Born illegitimate, he fathered an illegitimate child and then changed his name to avoid having to pay maintenance.
Later, he formed deep religious convictions and ended up marrying the widow of the Lord Mayor of London.
The Jireh Chapel in Lewes, where he is buried, is one of many once Calvinistic Independent causes that he helped found, others being at Barcombe and Five Ash Down.
Colin Brent goes into more detail in his seminal Georgian Lewes (Colin Brent Books).
He writes: ‘Alias the Redeemed Coalheaver, alias Parson Sack, Huntington was the bastard of a brutal Cranbrook farmer. After getting a girl pregnant, he fled into Surrey and turned his thoughts to Redemption ....
‘After they met at Maresfield, the Coalheaver buoyed up Pastor Jenkins [from Lewes]. He also counselled the pastor’s flock on Chapel Hill.’
But other missionaries disliked the Coalheaver. They and their followers migrated to the Jireh Chapel, a ‘neat and convenient’ tabernacle founded by the ‘Citizens of Zion’. Communication stayed open and Huntington preached there in 1805 to 1,000 hearers.
In 1813 he was buried beside Pastor Jenkins in the garden behind the Jireh Chapel. Vast crowds watched the mile-long cortege arrive from Tunbridge Wells.
The tomb still bears the epitaph: Here lies the Coalheaver .... beloved of his God, but abhorred of men; the omniscient Judge, at the grand assize, shall ratify and confirm this to the confusion of many thousands; for England and its metropolis shall know that there hath been a prophet among them - Sinner Saved.